Tuesday September 21, 2021

Out of reach

July 18, 2021

Let’s not even think about labourers, factory workers, daily wage earners, or others who often earn well below the minimum wage. Let's just take the ordinary households which must manage on the salary given out to the main wage earner in the household, perhaps subsidised slightly by other inputs. For these households, it is becoming increasingly impossible to manage because of the continuing price hikes. As if the increase in the price of petroleum products was not enough, another bombshell has been dropped on the people of Pakistan by the government increasing the prices of some essential commodities such as ghee, sugar, and wheat flour, for sale through the Utility Stores Corporation (USC). This surge in prices by over 50 percent will render these commodities out of the reach of the majority of people in the country. Ghee and sugar are something no household can do without. The same applies to wheat flour. When they cannot afford beef or mutton or chicken, they can at least feed their children with bread and vegetables. Now with increased prices of ghee and wheat flour, baking bread and cooking vegetables will be hard to afford.

A more than 50 percent increase in one go is heartless on the part of the government which came to power with promises to make life easier for citizens. These decisions were taken at a meeting of the federal cabinet’s Economic Coordination Committee (ECC), which only two members of the 14-member committee attended. Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin presided over the meeting and with these decisions he went against the promises he made while presenting the budget hardly a month ago. It is worth recalling that in his budget speech he had promised to impose no new taxes, contain inflation, and overall gave the idea of a rather rosy picture. As things stand today, all those pledges have turned out to be hollow and with each passing week new hardships are in store for the poor of this country. There have not been any corresponding benefits to the people for at least a couple of years now. Such decisions the ECC cannot and should not take with only two of the 14 members’ presence.

The ECC also allowed import of sugar and cotton and one wonders about what has happened to a country which was world famous for its own cotton and sugar production not long ago. Just like Ogra, the Ministry of Industries and Production keeps suggesting repeated hikes in the prices of commodities at the USC outlets. Now people will buy ghee at the exorbitant rate of Rs260 per kg, up from Rs170 previously. Wheat flour prices have increased to Rs950 per kg up from Rs800, and sugar has seen a surge from Rs68 to Rs85 per kg. The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics has once again put inflation for food items in double digits at 12.75 percent for the month. Given that salaries and earnings remain static, it is difficult to see how people are to acquire the food they need even to manage the basic requirements of their households. The rationale given for the increase is that the subsidies at utility stores needed to be brought closer to the market prices, rather than the other way round, resulting in more expenditure for people everywhere in the country. Let us not forget that when the Z A Bhutto government established the USC in the 1970s, its sole aim was to provide essential commodities at affordable prices. If people cannot buy enough to eat, if people cannot get the atta, sugar and ghee which all form a part of essentials in every household, it is difficult to see how they are to survive and what precisely the government expects them to do as it allows cartelization, notably in the case of sugar, to continue.